Monday, October 31, 2011

Saint Augustine's Confessions Part 4

Augustine has a way with words.  Once you get past the initial difficulty of reading the older language it is beautiful.  He can get straight to the heart of the matter.

"You knew what was going on within me.  No human did.  My lips could disseminate little of it to even my closest friends.  How could I find the time or the eloquence to report all the ravages of my soul?"

This semester has been a time of looking at big questions and trying to wrap my head around them in new ways. There has been a lot to think about and the combination of reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and now Augustine is giving me a little bit a whiplash.
Augustine can put into words things that are difficult to articulate.

Saint Augustine's Confessions Part 3

As I read through Augustine's Confessions I find that there are sentences that jump out at me.  Certain things that grab my attention and resonate with things I have been feeling or struggling with.

"Two wills were mine, old and new, of the flesh, of the spirit, each warring with each other, and between their dissonances, my soul was disintegrating."

"I could not renounce the world to follow you when I was still undecided about your truth.  Now I knew."

"Though no one wants to sleep forever. realizing that wakefulness is the higher state, yet man puts off waking when torpor, making heavy all his limbs, smothers him sweetly in slumber, against his better sense that 'it was time to be rising'" "All I could mumble, muzzily, was: later on.  Or: Any moment now.  Or: Wait a bit.  But the any-moment never came, and wait-a-bit stretched out into endless bits."   

This last one really hit home.  
Lots of things to think about.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thoughts on Zen and the Grade System

In his search for Quality, the Narrator from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance pauses briefly on grades.  He says that grades decrease creativity and quality.  The Narrator explains that in the grade system, students learn to desire the letter grade.  The way to achieve the grade is to do what the teacher wants and because of this the system teaches the students to blindly follow the teacher’s lead.  The Narrator makes it very clear that the system trains students to refuse to work unless there is a carrot held out for them and the threat of a whip behind them.  Try to be too original and the system could punish you.  Follow the spoken and unspoken rules and you get the highly desired A. 
One of the first things the Narrator does to think his way through this idea is come up with a theoretical situation about an average student who had grown up in the system and was suddenly introduced to a school with no grades.  
This student enters his first semester of school and has a hard time finding motivation to get his work done without the push of the grade system.  There is no obvious punishment for not turning things in or not coming to class.  At the same time, without any grades, there doesn’t seem to be any reward for actually doing the work and trying to learn the material.  He doesn’t have anything from the outside pushing him to learn, his motivation has to come from the inside.  He turns in the first couple assignments because it is habit.  After a while he skips a class here or there and misses some of the material.  The next time he comes to class, things don’t make as much sense so he skips the next class.  Eventually he stops going to class altogether and drops out of school.  This student gets a job after he leaves.  Perhaps he never returns but as he progresses with his job he might want to learn more about his work.  A couple years later he decides to go back to school and this time he has an interest in what he is doing, so he throws all his effort into class and does well.  The lack of grades doesn’t hinder him the second time because he learns to gain knowledge, not a grade.  
At this point the Narrator moves from his hypothetical situation to an experiment with his students.  He withholds grades from one of his classes to see if better quality work will result.  At first the students are confused.  Many see it as an excuse to slack off because they don’t know how to learn without grades.  For them, the grade system is the only way to learn; the only way to become educated. 
The Narrator believes that the purpose of a university is to educate people.  Society benefits from educated people who know how to think creatively and make good choices with the knowledge and experience they have.  This system was set up to teach people what they need to know in order to do just that.  Society assumes that college prepares students for the real world.  In reality, if a student has grown up in the school system, he needs the real world to prepare him to get the most out of college.  Instead of the creative thought needed for college and life beyond that point, school squashes creative thinking and teaches students to follow the leader.  If the system set up to improve society by educating people actually decreases their creative ability, something is awry. 
 Because of this, the students in the Narrator’s class see the absence of grades as a breakdown of everything school has taught them.  Without grades, his students have no idea how tell if they are learning something or not.  They have never experienced any other kind of feedback.  The students are thrown into a new way of learning that they have never experienced before.  Some of students turn in work and come to class but none of the work is high quality and any involvement in class discussions is halfhearted.  The majority of the class doesn’t even show up the first few weeks. 
If the Narrator were to stop the experiment at this point it would look like the experiment failed.  The lack of grades is not producing higher quality work from the students; instead it is not producing any work at all.  One of his co-workers asks the Narrator what he is going to do with a bunch of students that won’t even bother to come to class.  He replies “Wait them out.”
   As the class goes on the students dive deeper into the class.  Conversations in class turn into actual discussions and people share their ideas.  The students begin turning in excellent work.  Some adjust better than others do but at the end of the class most of students are involved in discussions and actively learning.  The Narrator did provide them with constructive criticism and feedback on the work that they turned in.  A lack of grades does not mean stumbling blindly around trying to find the answers.
As the Narrator looks at the results of his class, he concludes that students do well without grades but only if the teacher sets some type of goal for the students.  He doesn’t know how a teacher might set that goal without reducing creativity in the classroom nor does he pursue that idea to a point where he might find an answer.  His ideal class would include students who instinctively know what quality is without him having to teach them. 
I believe he comes to the conclusion that the very act of teaching limits creativity.  He starts with the idea that a certain part of the system is the problem and concludes, without coming right out and saying it, that something is wrong with the entire system.  But instead of thinking through to a possible answer he drops the subject entirely and moves on in his pursuit of quality. 
The Narrator establishes some good points about grades and it was interesting to read about his experiment with his students but I think that his arguments are lacking.  While I didn’t need much persuading to agree about the grade system I don’t think that someone who had grown up in the system would readily agree with the Narrator.  It is an interesting subject but one that is not covered very well in the book. 
If the grade system changes, students still need some kind of feedback on how they are doing or they need the teacher to set the goal for them.  If the goal is not an A then there needs to be a concept or idea to master.  Ideally this goal should help facilitate learning and discussion.  If, at the end of the class the students are able to talk about or think about this concept in a more intelligent way and with more understanding and knowledge than they could before, then that is more valuable that an A.     
            The Narrator’s thoughts and ideas on the school system, grades, and the quality that might be found within those structures is interesting and worth thinking about but he doesn’t spend enough time on the subject to produce a sturdy argument.  

Monday, October 24, 2011

Saint Augustine's Confessions Part 2

"But he is worse off if he holds that his error is a matter of religious faith, and persists stubbornly in the error.  His faith is still a weak thing in its cradle, needing the milk of a mothering love, until the youth grows up and cannot be the plaything, any more, of every doctrinal wind that blows."

The last line really struck a cord with me.  I feel as if my faith is still very weak.  I don't know enough and the new ideas that are being presented have a large effect on me.  They can easily sway me one way or another if I am not very careful in my thinking.  I have a foundation but many of those ideas I have taken for granted without dissecting exactly what it is they are saying.  If I don't know how the things I believe effect my life then how can I add new ideas and information to that?  How would I know if they go against one another?
This is something I have been thinking on quite a bit as I learn new things and try to figure out how my faith should effect my life.

Saint Augustine's Confessions Part 1

After reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance this was hard to get into.  The way in which it is written is a bit off putting and hard to wrap your head around.  When I read sections 1-3 I was focused mostly on how hard it was to read and not so much on what he was saying.  Having now read 4-6 I can start to pay attention to the meaning of the text.
There were several things that I felt tied back to Zen.  In 4 Augustine says this:  "How can we love anything but the beautiful? What, then, is a beautiful thing or beauty itself?  What entices and satisfies us in what we love?  Can anything compel us that is not beautiful and fitting?"
This sounds like the idea of Quality in Zen.  A beautiful thing has quality right?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Clay Sculpture

The final sculpture for my 3 Dimensional Design class.  
 This is right after I finished it.  It had to dry completely before it could be fired.
 It is over 18 inches tall.
 I had a couple people tell me that they thought it looked like a heart.

 I made the pattern on the sides by pressing leaves into the clay and then going over the marks to make them deeper.

The diamond shape is not connected to the tree.
After it dried it went into the kiln and was fired.  I got a surprise when I opened the kiln after it had cooled.  The trunk had exploded toward the bottom and it wasn't going to stand up by itself.  After some quick thinking, I was still able to present.  I actually prefer the way it turned out.

Sculptural Response

This is a project that was done a while ago but I forgot to share it with you.  It is a response to a short play we read in Theatre Production.  
 Made out of paper and foam.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance part 9(The final post on Zen)

I have finished Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Over all, I enjoyed it.  It made me think in ways that I had never experienced before and brought up ideas that had never occurred to me.  It was very enjoyable in some parts and very hard in others.  The story of Phaedrus and the Narrator was captivating and drew me along because I wanted to know what would happen to them.  The mixture of narrative and Chautauqua  felt very balanced in some parts but over all the Chautauqua took over the book.
When I was reading it I noticed that I was having a hard time thinking critically about the arguments presented in the text.  When I read a book, especially fiction and this felt very much like fiction, I totally except the rules of that world.  Since the arguments made sense in the Narrator's mind and world, I had a hard time seeing how it might not be true in the real world.  This is something that I think I got better at as I continued reading but it is still   a struggle.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance part 8

I'm not quite sure what I think about the epilogue.  It seems rather like a normal epilogue up until the point where the author starts to talk about Chris's death.  He begins to wonder where Chris has gone.  He decides that it is the pattern of Chris that he misses. 
In my mind this reduces Chris down to a sort of object and not a creation of God with a soul.  
He talks about wanting to know where Chris will reappear.  He then moves on to talking about his daughter that was born after Chris died.  The way that he talks about her unsettles me.  He must love her but he talks about her as if she is the reappearance of Chris and not her own person.   
There is just something about this that really unsettles me.  I can't quite put my finger on it.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance part 7

The end of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is rather confusing.  Phaedrus seems to come back and have a conversation with Chris.  There is not much that is said about what actually happened.
Did the Narrator become a ghost much like Phaedrus was at the beginning?  Did the two personalities meld in some way?
Something that was very interesting was that the Narrator seems to acknowledge that he wasn't living a quality life.  He simply existed for Chris and his wife.  If it were up to him he would just sit and not interact with anybody.  It seemed like when Phaedrus was erased the personality that replaced him was two dimensional where Phaedrus was three dimensional.  As if had a stronger more real personality replaced Phaedrus the Narrator wouldn't have been able to hold it together even that long.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance part 6

As you near the end of the book several thing begin to stand out.  The writing becomes more chaotic and a new theme is introduced.  This idea that in order to understand Quality you have to leave the rational world because Quality exists outside and above our rational way of thinking.  It is made clear that Phaedrus did just that.  He completely abandoned all reason and rationality.  He ignored his wife and child and chose to slip away into chaos and madness in pursuit of his goal.
I don't understand how a man could be that driven toward one thing even if that thing means the end of himself.  He abandoned his wife and child!  How could someone throw them self into something like that?  What end did he want to accomplish?